Peer Leadership, Courage and Culture Change


The best training program in the world is absolutely worthless without the will to execute it properly, consistently, and with intensity.  ~John Romaniello

Let’s face it, corporate America has been trained, retrained, and then trained again (even trained out!) on leadership and culture change.  Every consultant on earth (and there are mega-thousands) has a leadership development or culture change training, speech, book, Keynote talk, workshop, video or blog. By now, there isn’t one senior or mid-level executive who has not been to at least three leadership or culture change courses or speeches. They can recite the quotes, describe the leadership and change models, and even repeat some of the speaker stories and examples.

I don’t know about you, but if I see another new leadership or change workshop brochure or webinar I just may emigrate to the moon!

Not only is the content pretty much the same (but with different spins, like leadership the Army way, or the Navy Seal way, or the Olympic way, or the NFL way, or from the world’s best CEOs, Leadership Lessons from Genghis Khan, Penguins and Icebergs, etc.).  The models tend to be the same, the examples the same, even some of the same jokes.

Yet more than ever businesses, sports, the military and especially politics cries out for leadership and all are frustrated by the slow pace of culture change, if it changes at all.

Here’s the rub: We all know WHAT to do, and even HOW to do it, but we fail to ACT.  It’s not lack of knowledge, it’s lack of the COURAGE to ACT!

It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.  ~J. K. Rowling

storming gateAnd I am not talking about leading a revolution or storming the board room. The kind of courageous action I am pointing to is to be the first to speak up in support of new improvements, be the first to adopt new ways of working, be the first to step in when colleagues are bullying or harassing others. The first to say and do the right things, the little things that will signal a new set of behaviours. Real change starts with a small number of people who have the courage to act and begin to display new behaviours. Their changes often influence others to follow suit.

Our research and business experience over the past 30 years has found that change, and particularly culture change, does not take place through top-down training or communication programs, or the issuance of new “get tough” or “Zero Tolerance” policies. And certainly not through new regulations.  These are important ingredients and a part of the solution, but not sufficient to reshape behaviour.

Reshaping Culture:

So if culture change is really about behaviour change, what is the most effective way to reshape behaviour?

When new behaviours, ways of thinking and acting are introduced, role modelled and reinforced by respected peers, informal leaders and key influencers,  others in the group (or those who wanna-be) tend to follow suit. It’s human nature, pure and simple.  How else do you explain the quick uptake of fashion trends, facial hair in American baseball, or arm tattoos? It’s not a new law, it’s not a regulation, it’s not mandated by policy. It’s a new behaviour displayed by informal and respected key influencers that becomes contagious, even viral, for those in the group and those who wanna-be.

We human beings are social animals and peer acceptance (fitting in with a group) has a powerful influence on behaviour.  Street gangs are an extreme form of peer pressure and fitting in with the group. In essence, a street gang is a subculture of the youth in an area with a specific set of behaviours that they believe define who they are. These behaviours are almost religiously adhered to.

And there are strong subcultures inside of nearly every company. A company subculture is a group of people, with an informal leader or strong influencer, who tend to behave and think the same way. And surprise! Corporate culture is really a collection of these various subcultures.

The fact is, employees trust their peers and key influencers far more than they trust senior management, especially during times of change!

And herein lies the major lever for courageous action and change.

The concept is simple. To create a sustainable change, locate the informal and respected leaders inside your organization; those who have an inordinate amount of social and behavioural influence on others that far out weighs their position on the organization chart. Beware, many of these key influencers are not on HR’s list of upcoming and promotable. It’s the employees who decide who the key influencers are, not HR.

Then recruit them to become the change champions. As they adopt, display and talk about new behaviours (and new ways of working) this influence will spread.  Combine that with support from senior management in terms of revised policies and internal business processes that promote and reinforce these new behaviours, plus new behaviours role modelled by leadership and management, and you have a perfect Pull – Push – Sustain system for culture change.

The turnaround of the dirty and strike-ridden Halewood Ford Escort assembly plant in England into a modern Jaguar plant with showcase quality and productivity was all about getting the respected Union leaders and key hourly influencers engaged as the leaders of the Culture Change Workshops for all employees, as well are replacing those managers and executives who ruled with fear and negativity, plus instituting new policies and work procedures that fostered respect and trust.  Pull – Push – Sustain.

But not everyone has the courage to lead change, either executives or the informal leaders, and at the end of the day, the courage to start is the crucial first step.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.  ~Lao Tzu

Thanks for joining the conversation.

John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

+44-208-741-6390  office
+44-7833-493-999  uk mobile
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog
Business Books Website

Just published: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   
FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

PS: John also writes thriller novels 


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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